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Most people think of oral health as just the state of your teeth, but it’s really much more. Oral health affects how you look and how you feel about yourself. You use your mouth to talk, to eat, to express your emotions, and for many other purposes that are vital to your life. But more than that, the health of your mouth affects the health of your whole body. Problems in your mouth can affect your heart, your brain, and your lungs, and other organs. If you are pregnant, your oral health could even affect your unborn child.
Oral health is the condition of your mouth, including:
Likewise, the heath of your body shows itself in the state of your mouth. By examining your mouth, your doctor can pick up vital clues about other health problems, including:
Modern medicine has made great strides in improving oral health in the United States. For instance, Baby Boomers will be the first generation in which most people keep their own teeth for their lifetime. But much work still needs to be done. More than two out of every five Americans suffer from untreated tooth decay. And most adults have at least some gum disease. During middle age, 1 in 7 Americans suffer from severe gum disease, which may threaten the bones underlying the teeth.
Read on to find out more about oral health and what you can do to take better care of your mouth.
As we mentioned above, many factors can affect your mouth. These include:
A number of factors can raise or lower your odds of oral health problems. For instance:
In children, the greatest risk factor for poor oral health is a mother who has oral health problems or doesn’t have access to oral health care. Other risk factors in children include:
Factors that can protect oral health in children and adults include:
Poor oral health is also a risk factor for other health problems. Losing teeth in early adulthood may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and problems with your gums put you at risk for:
The best time to start caring for your mouth is before problems develop. When problems do develop, an early diagnosis can help catch problems before they get serious.
At the start of a typical dental checkup, a dental hygienist will:
Once in a while, you should also go in for a comprehensive examination. This includes the first time you visit a new dentist and from time to time thereafter. How often you need a comprehensive evaluation may vary from patient to patient. Your dentist should tell you when you are due for a comprehensive exam.
When you go for a comprehensive evaluation, bring a list of all the medicines you are taking, as some may cause dry mouth or other side effects, and other medications you take may have drug interactions with other medicines your dentist may want to prescribe. Also tell your dentist about anything unusual you may have noticed about your mouth, such as:
Also tell your dentist about any other health issues or concerns you have. A full medical profile will help your dentist recognize problems that might otherwise be hard to spot.
During a comprehensive exam, your dentist will check out:
After the examination, your dentist will tell you about any problems he or she noticed, and what the next steps are to deal with these problems.
There are many diseases that can affect your mouth, and each has its own symptoms.
Symptoms of tooth decay (cavities) include:
Other tooth problems may cause loose or worn-down teeth.
Symptoms of gum disease include:
Bad breath may also be a symptom of other problems, including cavities, dry mouth, or problems with your nose or sinuses.
Dry mouth may be a symptom of several conditions, including:
Symptoms caused by dry mouth include:
Symptoms of thrush (a yeast infection of the mouth and throat) include:
Cold sores on or near the mouth are symptoms of herpes simplex infection.
Symptoms of oral cancer may include:
Other diseases of the mouth may have different symptoms, and some overall health problems may cause symptoms in your mouth. If you feel like something is different or wrong inside your mouth, talk with your dentist.
Diseases of the mouth range from some that are easy to manage or even cure to others that can be much more serious.
Cavities are usually a minor nuisance if they are caught early. Untreated cavities may cause larger problems, such as:
Gingivitis, or bleeding gums, can usually be cured. Periodontitis (a deeper infection in your gums) may need long-term management, even after treatment. Still, periodontitis is usually controllable if you treat it before it damages the bones where your teeth take root, and you continue to take good care of your teeth.
Survival with oral cancer depends on how far the disease has spread. If cancer of the tongue or the base of the mouth is found and treated early, four out of five patients will still be alive 5 years after diagnosis. Five-year survival is as high as 93% for cancer of the lip. But once it spreads, oral cancer can become much more deadly, with 5-year survival ranging from 20% to 63% depending where the cancer started and how far it has spread. For cancers starting in other part of the mouth, the statistics are not as precise, but 5-year survival averages around 60% to 66%
The health of your mouth is deeply intertwined with your overall health. Taking care of your mouth helps protect your whole body, while healthy living and staying active help preserve your oral health.
To take good care of your mouth, floss daily, brush your teeth twice a day, and schedule regular dental visits. Some other things you can do to improve your oral health are:
According to the American Dental Association, everyone should visit a dentist regularly to screen for tooth and gum disease and other oral health problems. Since different people have different health needs, you should talk with your dentist about how often you should go. Generally, most people should go to the dentist at least once a year, and you should go more often if:
During a routine checkup, your dentist checks out the health of your teeth and gums and looks for oral cancer and other diseases. At a comprehensive dental examination, your dentist will do all of this and more, and thoroughly examine your mouth, head, and neck.
Taking care of your mouth should be part of your everyday routine. To give your mouth the best care:
For more steps you can take to protect your oral health, visit the Care Guide on this page.
There are also measures your dentist can take, such as:
For cavities, the primary treatment is usually filling the cavity. Modern fillings are made of resins, porcelain, or a combination of different materials. Other possible treatments for cavities include:
While you are undergoing a filling or other dental work, your dentist may give you lidocaine (Xylocaine) to numb the area. If dental work makes you nervous, your dentist may give you procain (Novocain) or another anesthetic to relax you or make you unconscious for the procedure.
After dental work, your dentist may give you:
Gum disease treatments depend on how severe the disease is. The primary treatment for gum disease is a pair of procedures, usually done together:
If you have severe gum disease, you may also need more serious surgical treatments.
Your dentist may also prescribe:
Other oral health problems have different treatments.
Approach alternative dentistry with caution, if at all. Avoid alternative health practitioners who tell you to remove your fillings, or not to use fluoride treatments. Modern dentistry has greatly improved the oral health and the overall health of Americans, and some alternative dental procedures have caused measurable harm to real people.
That said, there are some complementary health treatments that may offer benefit when used together with good dental care. Alternative treatments that are sometimes used in dentistry include:
Always tell your dentist about any treatments you plan to use, including alternative and complementary treatments.
The main thing you can do to care for your mouth is to practice good oral hygiene. This means:
For further protection, you can take these steps:
You should have regular dental checkups, probably once a year or more. Ask your dentist about your oral health needs and what schedule would work best for you.
If you don’t have a dentist already, you can ask your doctor for a referral, or you can look for a dentist near you; or at your health or dental insurance provider’s web site or the American Dental Association’s
When you go to see your dentist, it’s good to have a list of the questions you’d like to have answered. Take a moment to write down some of the things you want to know. Your questions for your dentist might include some of these:
Other useful resources to help you learn about ORAL HEALTH can be found at:
MouthHealthy from the American Dental Association
Oral health information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Maternal & Child Oral Health Resource Center from Georgetown University
American Pediatric Dentists
Oral Cancer Resources
How to Stay Relevant While Aging
Extreme Exercise and Heart Health
The Symptoms of Overextension
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